Politics / July 2, 2024

Democrats Are Running Interference for Biden. Voters Aren’t Convinced.

Party messaging since last week’s debate has set out to convince the public that what they saw on television didn’t really happen.

Chris Lehmann

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 28, 2024.

(Mandel Ngan / AFP)

President Joe Biden may have given every indication last Thursday that his faculties are slowing down at a distressing rate, but official Democratic messaging has gone into dizzying overdrive. The party spent the weekend floating a wide range of alibis for the historically abysmal performance of its standard-bearer in the head-to-head debate with Donald Trump that party leaders had hoped would finally swing his torpid approval numbers northward. Biden has a bad cold, went one early refrain; the debate fell outside the most productive hours of his workday, went another (so much for the appeal to a locked-in, engaged leader fielding a “3 a.m. phone call” on a pressing international crisis). CNN’s moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, did a terrible job fact-checking Donald Trump’s unceasing torrent of falsehoods, another line of argument went. (This one is not to be confused with the more baroque conspiracy that surfaced via social media that CNN’s makeup and camera crews executed a sinister plan to make Biden seem as pale and disoriented as possible.) After a weekend of soul-searching among Biden family members—with a timeout for an Annie Liebowitz photo shoot—a fresh set of excuses turned up: The candidate had been over-prepared for the debate during his weeklong prep sessions, and key Bidenworld advisers such as Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, and Dunn’s husband, Bob Bauer, had botched the critical job of ensuring that the candidate was rested and relaxed enough to carry the day against Trump. (Biden himself later denied these criticisms.)

Before long, though, the Democratic establishment rounded up the usual suspects: the corps of pundits who greeted Biden’s horrible debate turn with calls for the candidate to drop out of the race, as well as assorted commentators from the Never Trump and liberal podcasting worlds making the same case. One Biden fundraising e-mail decried an armada of “self-important Podcasters” and a “bedwetting brigade” of detractors for creating a divisive, alarmist mood among the anti-MAGA faithful. Biden’s departure from the race is “the best possible way for Donald Trump to win and us to lose,” the e-mail argued.

Unfortunately, the series of polls the e-mail cited to bolster that claim actually showed the opposite trend: In a field of other potential Democratic candidates, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, California Governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Biden was clocking the same mid-40s numbers against Trump—even though he enjoyed the vast advantages of incumbency, a lavishly funded party infrastructure, and a genuinely accomplished governing record, at least in domestic policy, over these untested hypothetical Trump rivals. Other results from the same polls sampled in the e-mail showed more red flags for the Biden campaign, as Rolling Stone politics reporter Andrew Perez notes. A Data for Progress survey found that more voters were concerned about Biden’s age than Trump’s recent criminal conviction. A 538/Ipsos poll indicated that just 20 percent of likely voters thought that Biden was mentally fit for the presidency, and only 15 percent agreed that he was physically up to the job. Surveys from CNN, Morning Consult, and Survey Consult returned the same glum verdicts.

At a minimum, the Democrats’ stay-the-course messengers need to communicate a compelling plan to swiftly and aggressively reverse these campaign-killing perceptions, and bewailing the thought crimes of podcasters and pundits isn’t anything close to such a program. Neither is the “salvation plan” that Axios scribes Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei reported to be the new Biden turnaround prospectus. The entry points on that blueprint simply revisit the initial wave of floundering Democratic arguments after last week’s debate. Rendered in Axios-ese, they include “dismiss ‘bedwetting,’” “get the donor class to chill,” “warn of chaos,” and “limit dissent.”

This is less a workable prescription to rescue a flailing presidential campaign than a case study in desperate and delusional professional-class venting. All the messaging from Biden campaign leaders so far hinges on the image of the Biden campaign as a heroic, misunderstood crusade to claw back small-d democracy, under perpetual siege by faithless pundits and influencers—but like Biden’s own dismal performance from the CNN rostrum, it fails to highlight the full scope of the crisis to anyone outside the Biden bunker. Just for starters, there’s no mention of any new campaign theme or message that could produce the pivot out of the polling doldrums that the debate was meant to engineer; nor is there any plan to foreground the genuine menace of the Trump movement, as Biden had successfully done in his pre-midterm speech on the endangered state of American democracy.

By contrast, after the Supreme Court handed down its high-Ceasarist ruling on Donald Trump’s claims of executive immunity, Biden was only roused to issue a wan, four-minute statement that impotently suggested that “the people” must remedy this calamity (even though he had been granted incredibly broad and unilateral power by the decision itself) and closed his remarks with the meaningless declaration, ” I dissent!” The point for a president is not to performatively cosplay as a dissenting justice but to do something, like laying out a serious actionable plan to rein in the high court’s runaway power. But that, like so much, is clearly beyond Biden and the Democratic establishment.

The battery of Democratic deflections and diversions from the central issues raised by the debate also betray a woeful lack of any long-term thinking about how to mobilize and revitalize the Democrats’ unraveling coalition. The effect of directives like “warn of chaos” and “limit dissent” is to frighten voters, not to inspire them. Sadly, we know from bitter experience how that logic plays out: It was the guiding strategy during the homestretch of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

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This rigid, misguided quest for maximum message discipline stands out in stark relief against the real nature of the crisis before Team Biden. The sort of cognitive decline that Americans witnessed on national television isn’t a minor detail to be repressed or wished away in succeeding news cycles as a “bad night” or a collateral cold symptom. As all too many Americans know from dealing with memory-impaired elderly loved ones, there is no upward trajectory on offer; “good days” are fleeting and episodic, and bad ones tend to multiply. Treating cognitive deterioration as a gaffe simply isn’t an option; Biden’s past malapropisms may have been isolated incidents, but his communication lapses and memory breakdowns are real and chronic, as recent reports from The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times make painfully clear. That there is no effective campaign message to counter the onset of aging is one of the central reasons for Biden to vacate the ticket.

In this same dispiriting vein, one of the key agenda items here, “prove vitality,” is already conspicuously absent in the frantic quest for a campaign rebrand. Shortly after the debate debacle, Biden made one unscheduled late-night appearance at a restaurant, and then a campaign rally in North Carolina. Since then, he’s been working behind the scenes at fundraisers and campaign meetings—and has a light schedule featuring just a handful of events for the balance of the week. None of this inspires confidence that he’s a happy warrior on the path to prevail in a hard-fought election. For Biden and his handlers to turn around the grim fallout from the debate, he has to be relentlessly moving ahead with campaign business in the public eye; otherwise, all the elaborate excuses billowing out of central command will continue to fall flat. For Americans to believe that Biden will be equal to the demands of the presidency in his mid-80s, they have to see the evidence firsthand, in how he talks, reasons, persuades, and parries criticism. To strictly mete out access to the candidate on the campaign’s terms is to reinforce the image of a feeble, incoherent, and mentally slipping chief executive that the country saw over the excruciating 90 minutes of last week’s debate. In defiance of the self-evident mandate to put the president back in the public domain, Biden campaign officials were already seeking to block a reporter’s access to skeptically minded voters at Nevada rally prior to the debate.

And this brings us to the final, glaring miscue in all the post-debate messaging coming out of the Biden bunker: It directly contravenes what has properly been the foundation of Biden’s past appeal to the electorate—that the mission of defeating Donald Trump is essential to reclaiming American democracy. For that claim to be something more than a hollow slogan, Democrats can’t blindly assert the party has already decided, and that henceforth voters have to sit tight, shut up, and wait for November, when the sage strategists and consultants in charge of mission control issue the all-clear to vote and go home. When Donald Trump told his supporters at his own Nevada rally that he only cared about their votes, not their well-being in the blistering desert heat, he at least appeared to be joking. It’s beyond dismaying that this needs to be said four months out from the general election, but it’s bad strategy to make Trump’s jokes the de facto Democratic Party rallying cry.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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